As a Muslim Mother, I’ve Had my Share of Fearful Parenting

It was after reading yet another Facebook update by a friend saying she had been spat on by a stranger in public that something inside me shrivelled down on itself.

I closed that tab and opened a new one for my email. In a stream of hot tears and hot words, I emailed my daughter’s teacher. I used words like ‘terror’, ‘safety’, ‘attacks’ and ‘alarming’. Sharp words that cut through space and cut through my heart. I cried as I typed an email asking my daughter’s teacher to keep her safe when I wasn’t there.

When I was overdue with my first child–the daughter at the centre of this piece–I went to the hospital for a check-up. After some tests, the midwife informed me that my baby was lying in a posterior position, meaning her spine was pressing into my spine and causing the terrible agony I felt in my back. She also said that much of my baby’s amniotic fluid had drained out. The liquid life that had surrounded her had slowly trickled away and I had not even noticed. How could I not notice? My baby was already slipping through my fingers, unobserved.

The midwife insisted my baby was very ready to be born. She needed to be born, and quickly, for both our sakes. And yet my body didn’t want to push her out and she appeared in no hurry to leave. We both seemed to want to stay attached, even if it hurt us.

But in honour of survival, I pushed my daughter through a ring of fire and into the world when I was just 23 years old–a young mother by modern standards. I cried with delight when the nurse placed her on my still-gasping chest and told me she was a girl; I had so desperately wanted a girl.

I fumbled and struggled through those early minutes and years like every first-time parent does, but no matter how much time stretches between her leaving my body and the current day, we remain attached.

At 11 years of age, I can still read her mind just by looking at her face. I see her futile struggle to pull down a composed mask like a roller-door over her guilt for an indiscretion. I can tell from four streets away what she’s feeling and thinking. Even now, she climbs into my bed when she is frightened at night and fits herself to the arch of my spine, the delicate, powerful bones of our backs curving together like a cupping hand and realigning like they did when she was in utero and I was out utero, yet we were in the same place. How did the cosmos not combust with the metaphysical magnitude of two souls existing in one body? How did such a feat not cause a rip in the space-time continuum?

The tearing of a mother when she gives birth is the tearing of the fabric of the universe, and as we become mothers we tumble down a wormhole to a new way of being. A way that is new for us, but is as old as life itself. As we flounder on our new-born mother legs, we are walking on the bones of the billions of mothers who came before us. Our stories are different, but we all write them with the same ink. My unique tale is just the same as yours. My mothering is a new existence that, in some ways, is so laughingly like the old I wonder why it has a special name.

Food is still eaten, bills still need to be paid, friends are still embraced and clouds still glide across the sky. And yet, it is also a completely different existence. Not only have routines changed and priorities shifted, but my emotions seem rawer. I now can be reduced to tears at the prospect of anyone’s suffering–living or dead, true or fictional, human or animal. My empathy knob has gone from a tolerable, everyday five, to sitting permanently at 900. Eleven years after giving birth to my daughter (with a beautiful son being born a few years later) and I still cry about baby animals being separated from their mothers, or foster parents stretching themselves thin to the point of transparency for the kids in their care. My empathy manifests itself as protectiveness for anything that seems vulnerable: I feel genuine concern and agitation when my five-year-old doesn’t feed the pretend dog on the Nintendo DS. So when it is my own small children, obliviously skipping out into a world that seems to want to hurt them? This is a hard situation to mother.

I do not want to mother from a place of fear. Fear is a clenched fist that is closed to possibility and wonder. I want to parent with a hand flung wide open, to accept and embrace and welcome what comes my way. To show my children that the world is intriguing and good and will rise up to meet their curious enthusiasm. That the world has a stretched open hand, too.

But as a Muslim mother, I have had my share of fearful parenting. I’ve had people speak abuse to me while I push my small child in the shopping trolley, and in that situation, my first concern is, “Did she hear that? Did my daughter’s tiny ears hear what they said to me and does she realise what it means?” Out of a desire to shield my toddler daughter from the hateful words of strangers, I have smiled and nodded at people who said vile things to me, hoping that my behaviour would make her think she had misunderstood what they said. I have smiled and nodded in agreement when people insulted me so she would not know.

In the symphony of motherhood, I am a living dissonance, the high notes that detract her attention from the punching bass line. If I had been alone, perhaps I would have said something back, but my instinct was to try to minimise the damage, to metaphysically cut off my own arm and throw it to the snarling dogs so we could get away, and my daughter be none the wiser. But repeated interactions like that start to gnaw away at you like a hungry mutt. And I fear that one day I will look down and see that I’ve hacked off everything about myself to try to shield my children and there is nothing left of me except bleeding stumps. Anger will make me hard, fear will make me brittle, and my life and the lives of my children will shrink in on themselves. And inevitably, this will impact on my mothering in ways I don’t like. But to respond to such situations with Pollyanna-like joviality seems unhinged.

When she was five years old and in her first year of school, my daughter came home and announced she wanted to wear a hijab (Muslim woman’s headscarf) to school, the local public primary school in which she was the only Muslim child in a community of hundreds. I froze. I asked her why she wanted to do that. “Because I want to,” came the reasonable reply. I tried to change the subject, hoping she would forget. She didn’t forget. And the next day, she brought it up again.

I didn’t know how to answer her. And I hated myself for not knowing. I wanted my daughter to be proud of her faith and embrace it as a part of her identity. But at five, she had no idea how her wearing a hijab would be interpreted by others. I could guess what the teachers and principal would think, and I felt sick about it. I did not want to guess what the other parents would think. I had never introduced her to the concept that other people might not like her being Muslim: how do you teach the idea of impersonal yet pointed hate to a five-year-old? She had no idea of the potential reactions that awaited her if she suddenly outed herself as a Muslim.

I silently tossed handfuls of questions to the kitchen ceiling and watched them scatter. Should I tell her she couldn’t wear her hijab to school? If so, why? What reason would I give her? And more importantly, what would she internalise from whatever I said? That her religion was shameful? That she needed to change, or at least hide, who she was to make other people accept her? That other people were to be feared? If I allowed it, was I being not just foolish, but a bad mother?

I had experienced enough rancour and open discrimination because of my hijab to know how public perception tilted. And I was a grown woman; she was a small child. In the end, I agreed, as I had no reason I could give her not to wear it. I remained nonchalant as we walked to school, my daughter skipping along, merrily oblivious, me feeling like I was sending my tiny five-year-old out to the wolves. She had no idea that the massive weight of 1400 years of religious history–and non-Muslim reaction to that history–had just settled on her skinny shoulders along with the fabric of her headscarf.

We entered the school grounds and I saw one mother’s eyes widen as she noticed my child. I kissed my daughter goodbye and left. I cried the whole way home. Every awful experience–every time a stranger shouted an insult at me on the street, every time someone told me they wouldn’t hire me because of my hijab, every time I had received hate mail, every time someone threatened me–came flooding back to me. These were all situations I thought hadn’t bothered me that much at the time. I’d often laughed them off. Now that my daughter might face them, they weren’t so funny. My empathy valve went into overdrive. I wanted to mother well in that situation. I wanted to mother with an open hand, but I could feel my hands snapping shut in fear and anger, and I did not want that for my children. I wanted to mother with patience and compassion and fearlessness. I realised I could not mother from a place I did not inhabit.

All day I worried about my daughter. When I was finally able to pick her up from school, she was standing in the middle of the playground, crying and hijab-less. Inside, my feelings began building towards nuclear level. I ran to her, asked her what happened, was she all right, tell me, what is the matter?

“I didn’t get the class beaaaaar,” she wailed.

“Sorry, what?”

“The teacher gave the class bear to someone else to look after! Waahhhh!”

Upon further probing, I discovered she had stuffed her hijab in her bag around lunchtime and that no one had really said anything about it and that what she really wanted to talk about was the travesty of the class soft toy being given to someone else for the weekend. Her childish naivety about the significance of what she had done was, unlike the hijab on her head, still in place. I knew then that this was just the beginning for my mothering and guiding my daughter on what it means to be a Muslim female in Australia.

It is easy to talk about an extravagant, crazy desire to see the best in the world despite what it throws at me when I am the one on the battle-front, my hijab the fluttering flag of my army. But I struggle to preach this pacifist war-cry to my vulnerable children. Not when I know a little too acutely that doing so can lead to them getting punched in the face and having graffiti sprayed on their homes.

We are travelling overseas when Muslims become a headline and a hashtag once more in Australia, and the likelihood of being attacked for being Muslim becomes higher than ever. There are terror raids and suggested burqa bans and a boy is shot and police stabbed and it seems the world cannot stop talking about us and what is wrong with us. My husband and I keep our conversations on the topic to hushed whispers, trying to shield our kids from what is happening; at eleven and seven, our children only see their faith as something beautiful and sensible. It is the true north on their moral compass. To hear people talking about it in ugly ways would be devastating and confusing.

I start to get messages from friends at home telling me their Muslim kids are crying themselves to sleep each night over what is happening. Other women don’t want to leave their homes. A friend and her baby in his stroller are kicked. My social media feed is choked with the reports of Australian female Muslim friends and the abuse–physical and verbal–they are receiving. Some commentators say we’re making it up, so not only are we victims, we are liars. One night we sardine into a cramped hotel room. I am packing our suitcases and BBC news is on in the background. I don’t realise until my daughter asks me what is happening that she has heard some of a news report about ISIS and attacks on Muslims in Australia. I fumble for an answer. Desperately searching to understand how she is processing this, I ask her what she thinks.

“I feel sad. I feel sad for the people who ISIS are hurting, and don’t know why Muslims would act like that. I also feel sad for the Muslims in Australia who are getting hurt by people. It reminds me of what happened before World War Two.”

The year before, we travelled to Amsterdam and took our children to Anne Frank’s house, and to Israel where we visited the Holocaust museum. My daughter was deeply struck by what had happened in Germany before the war started–the way stereotypes of the Jews were actively circulated to help create an attitude of widespread anti-Semitism.

“Surely people remember what happened with World War Two and the dangerous things that can happen when you negatively stereotype a whole group of people? Why would they want to do that again?”

“I don’t know,” I say honestly.

Becoming a mother has been a beautiful, difficult journey, but the blistering experience of becoming a good Muslim mother in 21st century Australia has often felt like I’ve tripped into the blacksmith’s fire. Initially, it just seems painful and destructive. But the heat is there only because that is what makes the materials malleable enough to be formed into something useful. Without the high temperature, the material will remain an ineffectual piece of metal; it is the fire that transforms it into something effective. I can see this fire as harmful or I can see it as transformative. So I choose to see this fire that I walk through as having one purpose: to shape me into what I need to be. And that includes becoming a better mother than I would otherwise have been.

Since September 11, I’ve never had to write an email like the one I wrote to my daughter’s grade five teacher. And I never expected that I would have to. The blaze has flared up again in Australia, but experience has told me it will soon enough die down to embers that only smoulder when kicked. It would be easy just to hide behind the couch and wait for it all to end. But the pressure of this heat has made me channel my empathy into ensuring my children are more empathetic towards others.

“Becoming a mother has been a beautiful, difficult journey, but the blistering experience of becoming a good Muslim mother in 21st century Australia has often felt like I’ve tripped into the blacksmith’s fire.” Photo: Supplied.

We constantly talk about kindness to others, considering the feelings of others, helping others. All the experiences I have had of people pushing hate my way have taught me that the only response to a lack of compassion is fierce, unrelenting compassion to all. It is the only empowering position we can take.

I realise that if I am only mothering my children through fear and anger in this area, I am mothering half-dead. I want to teach my children to truly live, and that involves vulnerability. Fear cannot be completely eradicated and, sadly, there are times when fear is the sensible response. But there is more reason to trust our fellow humans than not, and the greatest antidote to fear isn’t bravery but service to others.

I want to teach my children that a life of service is a life truly lived. It is when we are most vulnerable, as I was during that first pregnancy, that we trickle unnoticed into the support of others. Far from being a loss, this is how we give birth to our own lives.

I haven’t yet told you my daughter’s name. It is Aisha. It means ‘alive’.

This essay by Susan Carland appears in a new anthology, Mothermorphosis, edited by Monica Dux, published by MUP.